A coalition of Amazon warehouse workers in the New York City area has announced plans to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board next week.
The group, which calls themselves the Amazon Labor Union, are being led by a former fulfillment center employee of the e-commerce giant, Chris Smalls. He became the face of the labor movement at Amazon when he was fired under contentious circumstances at the beginning of the pandemic after organizing a demonstration over working conditions amid the health crisis.
The move comes some six months after a high-profile union bid by Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who sought to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The unionization efforts garnered support from lawmakers and even President Joe Biden. Ultimately, however, the election resulted in the Alabama workers overwhelmingly voting not to form a union — though the RWDSU has accused Amazon of union-busting techniques — Amazon denies this — and has filed objections over the election with the NLRB.
“We’re completely independent, worker-led through and through, grassroots,” Smalls said of the New York-based group, adding that they felt there were “missed opportunities” with the failed effort in Alabama.
“We’re just trying to navigate our way — we think we know the ins-and-outs of the company better than a third party or an established union,” Smalls said in describing why they’re seeking to create an independent union. He said he’d worked at Amazon for almost five years before his termination and that his fellow lead-organizers have similar experiences.
Smalls said organizers are seeking to obtain better job security, pay and working conditions through collective bargaining.
“Amazon has a high turnover rate — they hire and fire all the time,” he said. “We want to protect workers with their job.”
“We also want a decent living wage,” he added. “I know Amazon’s going to claim that they pay better than competitors, but with the cost of living in the New York state area, it’s still not sustainable.”
He said Amazon can afford to pay workers better, pointing to the wealth of founder Jeff Bezos, who was only recently unseated by Elon Musk as the richest man in the world, per Bloomberg’s real-time data on billionaires.
Smalls said they have more than 2,000 workers who have signed union cards, and they plan to deliver these to the NLRB’s office on Monday to file for the union election for four facilities in Staten Island. There are approximately 7,000 workers at the facilities, according to Smalls, and organizers need signatures from at least 30% of the workers. He said they’re confident they’ll secure the remaining portion before Monday.
A statement from the newly formed coalition of workers said that they built trust among colleagues through months of organizing efforts that included hosting barbecues, handing out food and cold water and holding rallies.
“This is truly a remarkable historical moment for all Amazon workers all over the country,” the Amazon Labor Union stated. “Workers under the banner of the ALU have already broken barriers, and we will continue to do so. We’re not getting complacent, and we now need the support of the communities more than ever as our fight is just getting started.”
The move comes amid a spate of strikes and new employee activism in the workplace as the pandemic wanes in the U.S.
“The timing is, like, perfect, everybody’s been paying attention to the strikes, especially Amazon workers as well,” Smalls said. “So it’s kind of like we all stand in solidarity, even though we’re in different industries.”
“I think what we’re doing here is historical, and I think the Amazon workers are happy to be a part of it,” he added.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, told ABC News in a statement Friday that they don’t feel unions “are the best answer for our employees.”
“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have,” Nantel said. “Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”